Prana cannot be translated exactly into present-day English , the original sense of ‘spirit’ might come close to it. Control of prana is not the same as control of the breath, but one of the movements of prana is in phase with breathing, and the prana movement is most easily perceived by trying to become aware of it along with movement of breath.
Control of prana, or pranayama, is introduced after the bhavana meditations on friendliness and the others, but most of the commentators agree that this is not an alternative to them. The Mahatma Balarama points out that Sutra 33 gives the friendliness meditations as a means of making the mind clear, whereas this one and the ones following it refer to making the mind steady. Both transparency of mind and steadiness are necessary for samadhi. Here is what he says:
It cannot be right that by any of these alternatives purification of the mind is brought about, for mere expulsion and restraining of prana could never produce refining of the mind. It is steadiness of mind that may be attained by expulsion and restraint of prana, as one alternative, and pranayama and the following alternatives are optional means of attaining steadiness. But pranayama is not a means for making the mind pure. That this is the right way to understand it is shown by what the Lord says in the Gita, ‘In a refined mind, buddhi quickly becomes steady’, and there is also what holy Vyasa has said, ‘When mind has been refined, its concentration attains stability.’ This makes it clear that without making the mind pure, it will hardly be made steady. Thus expulsion and restraint of prana are presented by the sutras as a means of steadying a mind which has already been purified by meditation on friendliness and the others, and control of prana is not by itself a means of making the mind pure.
The practices (friendliness, expulsion of prana, etc.) are not optional alternatives; nor are their results (refinement of mind, and its steadiness) optional alternatives. The meditations on friendliness etc., which are the means to refinement of the mind, must always be combined (with at least one of the other methods given) to attain steadiness. So the conclusion is: no option in regard to meditations on friendliness etc., which must always be practised.
Shankara, however, in his commentary states that meditation on friendliness, etc. can also give stability of mind in addition to making it clear. This is in accord with the importance which in his Gita commentary he gives to the meditation on the Lord as the friend of all. He remarks also that the other methods for steadying the mind, such as pranayama, are appropriate depending on the person and the time and the place.
In the exercises in pranayama, the yogi tries to become aware of pranic currents by visualizing or feeling that the breath itself is moving along the pranic channels. Then gradually, or quickly in some cases, he begins to notice a current which moves at the same rhythm as the breath, but is not the same as the physical breath. This current is called prana (sometimes divided into five according to its movement), though in classical texts it is still often referred to as ‘air’ or ‘breath’, and it is assumed that the reader will understand it as prana.
Sutra 34 speaks of exhaling and restraining prana, and Shankara explains this as two separate practices. The first consists of lengthening the out-breath; in actual practice it is done with a series of long Oms, each one of which is gradually extended to fifteen seconds or longer.
The yoga sutras are in analytical form, and different elements are presented in isolation. But in training there is generally a combination. Pranayama is a very ancient practice, and when Manu praises it so highly (the present text of his Law-book dates from only about A.D. 500 but parts of it are known to go back for several centuries before that) he speaks of it in conjunction with Om. So also Yajnavalkya explains that pranayama in its highest form is ‘seeded’ – which means that it has the ‘seed- syllable’ Om combined with it.
The repetition of Om, sounding it very quietly but audibly on long exhalations, is pranayama of the first form; with practice the yogi begins to feel a vibration in his body, which means that he is becoming aware of the pranic current. He also feels that his body is becoming filled with light; this is a well- known effect which has great significance for the progress of meditation. Swami Rama Tirtha, himself a scientist, says of this:
For one minute, cast overboard all desire; chant Om; no attachment, no repulsion, perfect poise, and there your whole being is light personified. . . . While you are chanting Om, feel that you are Light, Glory. Light you are. Christ said, ‘I am the light of the world.’ Mohammad and all the great saints spoke in the same way. … It is just as much a matter of experience as any experiment performed in any laboratory.
From merely making the expirations very long, fine and slow, the mind becomes steady. But unless one is also practising the friendliness bhavana, or some other practice like Om, the mind will indeed become steadied by the pranayama but afterwards there will be a reaction. The invigoration produced by pranayama creates an excitement, and the power-instinct or some other passion may rise with great force. But if he has practised with the Om syllable, feeling it as the expressing-sound of the Lord, he will not be subject to these disturbances so much, and if they do come, he will be able to detach himself from them. Om repetition removes the obstacles, as sutra 29 has declared.
The second pranayama practice referred to in the sutra is ‘checking’ or ‘restraining’ prana. Shankara gives this as a separate practice, and it is a full course of controlling inspiration and expiration, and holding the breath. This is a much more elaborate process, and it involves many restrictions. There must be absolute abstinence from sex, from talking or walking much, from over-eating, and from eating at all anything acid, astringent, pungent, salt, or bitter, and he must live in retirement in a little hut. The movement of the pranic currents is very fine, and unless the physical condition is brought to a state of extreme sensitivity and balance, they cannot be discerned. By practice the breath becomes longer and finer, and it can be held for longer and longer as the body becomes adapted.
One main purpose of all these operations is what is technically called ‘udghata’ or up-stroke. It is explained by Shankar a that the ‘air’ (prana) which has been excited and then controlled, rises abruptly from the abdomen to the head. Vachaspati and later commentators explain that the current is felt moving abruptly from the navel to the head. It can be like a shock, or a sensation of inner light moving up and producing sometimes a feeling like a giddiness. This is the first ‘up-stroke’. The yogi notes how many breaths it has taken him in the practice that day to produce the up-stroke.
The current does not remain in the head, but it can produce an exhilaration which lasts a good time. One purpose of mentioning these things is not to recommend them, but because they can occur spontaneously even in a yogi not practising pranayama, and he must be able to recognize what has happened. It has to be expected in some cases that the general invigoration will lead to a strengthening of instinctive impulses. Unless the yogi is prepared to increase correspondingly his practice of tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (study and repetition of Om), and worship of the Lord, his yogic career may be cut short for quite a time. To practise pranayama without observing the disciplines, particularly sexual abstinence, can lead to an increase of obstacles, especially trembling of the body which can become uncontrollable.
In general, teachers recommend pranayama to disciples of bulky build, rather than to nervous people who are thin.
Swami Rama Tirtha did not recommend anyone to practise the second form of pranayama; he said that it was unnecessarily complicated and dangerous, and that the ‘up-stroke’ could be achieved in a much more natural way, without complications:
Meditate on the meaning of Om. With language, lips, feeling, action, affirm it. Chant Om with every fibre of your body. Begin with little force; sound first conies from throat, then chest, lower and lower down until from base of spine; then electric shock, opening of Sushumna, your breathing becomes rhythmical, all germs of disease leave you. . . .
About opening Sushumna, about the thousand-petalled Lotus, waste not your time; all will come to you. Do not confuse yourself with meandering zigzag paths, or you will have to repent.
© Trevor Leggett